Monday, November 2, 2009

Plato on Love.

Aristophanes, the Athenian comedic playwright is famous for lambasting politicians during the Peloponnesian war. But also according to Plato’s “Symposium” he put forth a theory of love, in a short mythopoeic narrative. Expressing the idea that human-beings are inherently incomplete, wanting for another individual who represents their other half. This theory was counterpoised with several other conceptualizations of what constituted love. Socrates in the “symposium’’ also postulated a conception of love advocating that love constituted the “desire for perpetual possession of the good”. The purpose of this paper will be to render an account of both Aristophanes and Socrates account of love in more detail. Furthermore discussing the contention between the two theories and critically evaluating which if at all these theories adequately elucidate the nature of love.

The story delivered by Aristophanes started with the idea that originally human-beings had three genders (Plato, 2005, p 26). There were males born of the sun, women born of the earth and the androgynous a mix of the two born of the moon. These early human-being were quite different from their current incarnation, having two of everything, two faces, two pairs of legs (Plato, 2005, p. 27). These human-beings were according to the myth stronger and more ambition and tried to assault the Olympian gods. Zeus desiring the continued worship of the gods refrained from destroying the human race for their insolence. Deciding upon another form of punishment, that of cutting the humans in half. Creating individuals who are merely half of a whole Zeus designed these individuals with more weakness, deficient in their isolation and incompleteness.

To overcome this isolation and deficiency individuals sort the company of another. Sex was invented for the reproduction and propagation of the human-race but also to overcome the sense of alienation. Aristophanes claimed sex had this second function not only in heterosexual relations but also homoerotic liaisons. Homosexuality comes about from those who were split from either male or female wholes. Heterosexual individuals were split from the androgynous whole. Each individual therefore searches to find their perfect match, their other half to gain completeness. Aristophanes claims this desire as a human universality of condition, everyone wishes for a perfect union with their own natural counterpart. Love is therefore according to Aristophanes, the volition to become whole.

When Socrates gives his account of love, he reiterates the position of Diotima whom taught him “the ways of love” (45). Diotima communicated the dimensions of love through a narrative about its creation. According to this story, Poverty wishing to alleviate her condition decided to sleep with Resource. The prodigy of this union was love; love gained its nature from the dual characteristics of its parents. From Poverty love inherited that quality of always being in need and from resource love schemes after that which is beautiful (Plato, 2005, p 49). The short story elucidates the nature of lack and desire within loves dynamic as expressed by Diotima’s theory. Love is not itself an object of desire but a desire for an object. The object of loves desire is that which is good. Diotima counters the theory which Aristophanes represented by arguing that we love another not because they constitute our other half but rather because they have the quality of being good (Plato, 2005, p.52).

The possession of the good and the beautiful is taken by Diotima as the definition of happiness (Plato, 2005, p. 47). Pushing this idea further in their didactic dialogue, Diotima proposes that individuals should wish to posses the good forever (53). As consequence of this, particular actions must be taken in order to perpetuate the possession of the good. Love as a result of this logic gains a function, giving birth to beauty both of mind and body (53). Sexual intercourse is therefore a manifestation of this love; procreation is how human-beings attain immortality and therefore perpetuate their possession of the good (54). This procreation functions not only through somatic means but also through mental procreation.

Mental procreation is therefore another way to attain immortality. Lycurgus and Solon creators of the Spartan and Athenian constitution respectively have gained “fame immortal” by the proliferation of virtue, a mental quality (Plato, 2005, p. 59). Diotima went as far to postulate that there is a hierarchy of goods. The lowest form of good is the beauty of the body; one should then turn towards higher goods in the mental realm if one is capable (Plato, 2005, p. 60). The highest form of beauty put forth by this theory put it beyond the realm of “human flesh” and “moral rubbish’’ (Plato, 2005, p.62). Platonic love at its highest manifestation turns away from the world, towards an abstract idea. This idea is only known to “god” the source of our polluted copy, we cannot grasp the original (Plato, 1987, p. 260). Camus argued against this conception of love inverting its hierarchy claiming “those who love truth should seek for love in marriage” further denoting the later as “love without illusions”(1979, P. 271). This partial criticism of platonic love demonstrates its inadequacy when attaching to the natural phenomena of love a religious dimension and hierarchy of forms.

The two theories of love have been elucidated; the theory held by Socrates is implicitly a critique of the theory put forward by Aristophanes. Aristophanes held that we love another for the unique singularity that they are, as they constitute our other half. Love is the desire to attain a connection with that other half and gain completeness. This theory renders the nature of isolation and feelings of alienation which is not captured in Socrates theory. But Aristophanes is severely critiqued by Socrates, when Diotmia argued that we do not love another for their unique singularity but rather the qualities which made them beautiful. This theory at first seems more practical and therefore adequate in explaining the nature of love and attraction, the desire for the good. But it’s hierarchy of forms is lacking. Because it preferences an abstract ideal above all worldly things. It is furthermore an abstraction which cannot be known, which renders this component of the theory superfluous even dangerous if we follow Camus reasoning that it constitutes illusion.


Camus, A. (1979), “Notebook iv”, Selected Essays & Notebooks, Ed & Trans Thody, P. Penguin, Ringwood

Plato, (2005), Symposium, Trans Gill, C. & Desmond, L. Penguin, St Ives plc.

Plato, (1987), The Republic, Trans Lee, D. (2nd ED), Penguin, St Ives plc.

(written early 2007)

1 comment:

parallelliott said...

When I had to perform best man duties at a friend's wedding, I flirted with the idea of using Aristophanes' account as my speech. I didn't do it, but hopefully I'll have some opportunity to do so in the future.